Wednesday night, I spoke at a dinner in Zanesville, Ohio, offering my thoughts on the war in Iraq and the recent events in Fallujah. Seated at my table was Wayne Farnsworth Jr., a local businessman. In October of 2001, Wayne’s son Brad–who was then a junior at Ohio State University–came home to explain that he was dropping out of school. These words–dreaded by parents–were followed by yet another surprise from Brad, who declared: “And I’ve joined the Marines.” Wayne’s initial concern regarding his son’s education quickly melted away, replaced instead by pride. Brad has since been deployed in Afghanistan, and will soon be serving in Iraq. His decision joined him with thousands of Americans who answered the call to military service in the wake of 9/11, and connected him with the tradition of millions who served this country in wars and battles past–the veterans we honor today.
This Veterans Day takes on a special significance for me, because I had the honor and privilege of spending five months in Iraq this year, reporting for National Review Online. During this time, I embedded with a number of units throughout Iraq, and observed our future veterans firsthand. Here, then, are a few of their stories.
I spent around seven weeks embedded with an Ohio National Guard unit that was attached to the 196th Cavalry in Iraq. After returning from a day with the fourth platoon in the Kurdish village of Mansur, I reviewed my pictures to discover that I could not find a single picture with Staff Sergeant Derrick Gleason smiling. While most of the men smiled at some point during the day they spent surrounded by throngs of Iraqi children, Ssg. Gleason did not. Back at the barracks, Gleason’s platoon leader pulled me aside to explain why. The Army prohibits soldiers from being deployed in Iraq if they have any preexisting conditions–including dental–that might require treatment while the soldier is in theatre. Prior to deploying, Sgt. Gleason was found to require a series of dental procedures that would have taken more time to perform than remained prior to his unit’s scheduled departure. He was therefore given a choice: stay home, or have twelve teeth pulled in order to go to Iraq. Ssg. Gleason, and many others like him, chose the latter.
When I asked Sgt. Gleason why he chose to have twelve teeth pulled in order to go to Iraq, he shot me a quizzical look, which betrayed in an instant that staying home simply was not an option. “I knew the platoon needed NCOs [non-commissioned officers] with experience,” he said, and so he would be going–even if that meant that a large number of his teeth would not be coming with him.
This is the spirit of volunteerism that pervades the military units currently in Iraq–military units made up of men and women who often volunteered twice–once to join the National Guard, and a second time specifically to go to Iraq. And it is a volunteerism motivated by a clear purpose. Just ask Sgt. Mike Ward, a father of seven from Dallas, Texas, who is stationed in Tuz, Iraq. Before he left, one of his daughters asked him why he had to go to Iraq–why couldn’t he just serve his country in the states. He responded, “So that you can be safe. So that you can go to school and to work without worrying . . . .”
I also made several trips to the 31st Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. On my first visit there, I met Petty Officer Leo Geibel, a 21-year-old Sea Bee from Kane, Pa. Leo joined the military in December 2001 straight out of high school, and already has logged in two trips to Iraq. He first came to Iraq from October 2002 through May 2003 for the primary military action, and then he returned in late February of this year.
Leo was deployed with a tactical movement team in the Sunni Triangle–a unit that provides security for transports across some pretty inhospitable territory. On a day that began like any other in Iraq, Leo and his team were dismounted providing a security survey. Leo actually saw the flash of the mortar exiting the tube before it hit, shattering his left leg from the ankle to the shin.
At the hospital, Leo’s leg was heavily wrapped in gauze, but blood still made it through the dressing and onto the bed. The doctors told him that they thought they would be able to save his leg, but Leo was still understandably concerned. Even so, he showed a remarkable determination, emphasizing that whatever happened, he was happy to be alive.
Leo first wanted to thank “everyone who drug me out of there,” as well as the doctors and staff at the CSH, whose care made it feel like home. When I asked him if he was anxious to get back to his actual home, he reflected that, “I kind of wish I could stay.” He and his unit had spent a great deal of time training together, to the point that each understood how the others would react in tough situations. He knew that his unplanned departure created a hole, and that if someone else were brought in to fill his spot, it would take time to get the unit to click again the way it once had. He was nonetheless looking forward to seeing his family, and to enjoying the simple pleasures of hunting and fishing. He also hoped that his leg would heal well enough to allow him to play baseball again.
As I was chatting with Leo, the nurses were prepping him to be picked up by a medevac, which would take him to an airbase for transport to Germany, from where he would ultimately return to the States. As they lifted him from the bed to a wheeled stretcher, he visibly winced in pain. Before loading him on the chopper, one of the nurses came by with a large Ziploc bag containing the personal effects retrieved from his pockets after the doctors cut off his pants to work on his leg. As he looked through the bag, he noted that something was missing–his Bible. He explained that he normally carries his Bible in his back pocket, and that the day he was hit with the mortar was the first day he didn’t have it with him. The earnestness of his statements struck me as pure–not some talismanic attachment to the book for good fortune–but a devotion to his faith, to see him through even the valley of the shadow of death.
After our brief meeting, he was transferred to Bethesda for the more extensive surgery. In addition to inserting plates and pins, the doctors cut bone from his hip to graft to his leg. Leo will be able to walk again, but he conceded that he will probably not see the baseball diamond again. He is recuperating today at his home in Pennsylvania, and I hope he is able to take in a Veterans Day parade.
Today we honor those who have served–those who have paid the price for freedom. But for me, today is all the more meaningful, having had but a small opportunity to see the dedication of those who continue to pay that price.
–Robert D. Alt is an NRO contributor and a fellow in legal and international affairs at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.